Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Wanted: New Theory of Causality

Unacknowledged problems with the concept of causation plague philosophical debates. Take, for instance, the issue of the causal closure of the physical world. This seems to require that first person experience must be either epiphenomenal (no causal impact) or, if we insist it can cause, we are left with interactionist dualism (which fails because it has no plausible way to connect the physical and non-physical worlds).

This is the heart of the free/will determinism debate. To say a human has free will, we must reject causal closure or find some way to redefine free will to make it seem compatible with determinism.

The real problem is that we do not have an adequate concept of causality which fits the true workings of the natural world (of which humans are a part!)


In many of these debates, it seems pretty clear that people on both sides have in their minds a causality based on something like classical mechanics. While there is a philosophical literature on causation which highlights the controversies surrounding the concept, I rarely see it invoked in philosophy of mind or free will discussions. The notable recent exception I’ve discussed here is Gregg Rosenberg’s book, A Place For Consciousness, which presents a detailed new theory of causality and connects it to the body/mind problem. I'll be going through the book soon for a third time and will continue to assess its causal model.

Here are 3 reasons to think we need a new treatment of causality:

1. Quantum mechanics has overthrown the classical picture, but when philosophers bring it into the discussion, they oversimplify by assuming it is a simple probabilistic version of the classical.

2. Complex non-linear systems resist reduction to classical causation, but no one has offered a new explanation, except to say higher level features somehow emerge.

3. Remember also the difficulty we have of finding an explanation of the asymmetrical "flow" of time, in which causality takes place. This concept is not part of the laws of mechanics. While time asymmetry arises in the 2nd law of thermodynamics, this statistical law dangles unconnected to the other laws of physics.

Let’s start with the case of QM, where the causal process is indeed richer than the classical one. We have a unitary process of evolution described by the wave function, and then we have a second process: measurement. There is obviously more going on here than in the classical picture of billiard ball ‘A’ effecting billiard ball “B”. One or both systems involved in a measurement need to have an additional (natural) property in order to have a quantum causal event. This “ability to measure” or “ability to observe” or “ability to receive information” property is an integral part of the picture.

A new concept of causality should make this “ability to measure” property explicit and work out the role it plays in construction of natural systems, including complex macroscopic ones like us.

With regard to complex systems, they appear to manifest a binding or coordinating dimension to causation which supplements classical micro-causation of the parts of the system. A new theory should include an explanation of this phenomenon.

With regard to time, all the evidence shows that the asymmetrical flow of time and causality is an consequence of the first person perspective, rather than an objective feature of nature. A new theory of causation should show how the causal interactions of an individual system constitute the flow of time.

The best case is that these 3 requirements come together in a new theory. The theory would explain how a natural system implements quantum events, coordinates them, and generates a system-relative flow of time.

6 comments:

dadahead said...

first person experience must be either epiphenomenal (no causal impact) or, if we insist it can cause, we are left with interactionist dualism (which fails because it has no plausible way to connect the physical and non-physical worlds).

Are you simply assuming that physicalism is false?

Not that there is anything wrong with that. Physicalism is false. But still.

dadahead said...

Or, to be more precise: physicalism is either false, trivially true, or incoherent, depending upon the formulation.

Steve said...

Hi Dadahead. I believe physicalism is false in the sense that it is incomplete. By incomplete, I mean that it excludes or brackets first-person experience, with which we are directly acquainted.

dadahead said...

Though the physicalist would disagree with that (or most would), saying, e.g.: I do not deny the reality of first-person, subjective experience, though I do deny that this experience is anything over and above physical processes. That is to say, the physicalist doesn't have to deny 1st person experience; he just has to hold that this experience itself is physical.

This is tough to do, of course. The best attempt by far that I have seen is Galen Strawson's. His defense of what he calls "Real Materialism" can be found in the anthology "Chomsky and his Critics" (which, surprisingly (at least to me), focuses mostly on the mind-body problem; Chomsky is actually one of the best philosophers on this issue, though people don't seem to associate him with it). (Another philosopher who to my mind is one of the best on mind-body issues, though he too is not typically associated with them, is Russell, who Strawson discusses at length and who seems to be, to some degree, the inspiration for Strawson's own view.)

Strawson's "Real Materialism," however, ends up looking extremely similar to Chalmers' view, IMO. Which calls into question whether it can be called "materialism" at all.


NOTE: I apologize if this comment shows up more than once. Blogger is acting wacky today.

dadahead said...
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shannon said...

Hi Steve, dadahead. I am currently working on applying a view of nonlinear causality in reference to the Causal-Functionalist Theory of mind put forth by Armstrong and Lewis. The perspective that is being used involves the measurable chain of cause and effect as being the visible/manifested result of an actual nonlinear reality. Since you perceive the limits of a pure physicalist understanding, perhaps you would be interested in a book by David R. Hawkins "Power vs Force". The book deals mostly with a social/psychological understanding of human consciousness, though explains how a nonlinear reality actually informs the linear world. Interesting stuff, and perhaps closer to a better theory of causality.